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Viral story of boy who died in Santa’s arms unravels

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It was a story many wanted to believe: A terminally ill child gets his last wish to see Santa and dies in his arms.

But the Tennessee newspaper that ran it first now says it can no longer stand by the account.

The Knoxville News Sentinel story quickly went viral after it was published Sunday. USA Today republished the column, which was written by News Sentinel columnist Sam Venable. A host of national news outlets gave it additional coverage, including CNN, who spoke to Santa actor Eric Schmitt-Matzen about his interaction with the boy in his final moments.

"When you get to those pearly gates, you tell 'em you're Santa's No. 1 elf, and I know they'll let you in," Schmitt-Matzen recalled telling the boy.

But in a note published online Wednesday, Venable and News Sentinel editor Jack McElroy said they were unable to verify the account after it was published because Schmitt-Matzen refused to provide the identities of the child's family or the nurse who purportedly called him to the hospital, which is not named in the story.

"The News Sentinel cannot establish that Schmitt-Matzen's account is inaccurate, but more importantly, ongoing reporting cannot establish that it is accurate," McElroy and Venable wrote. "Therefore, because the story does not meet the newspaper's standards of verification, we are no longer standing by the veracity of Schmitt-Matzen's account."

CNN called all the major hospitals in the Knoxville area that treat children and none could confirm his account. The coroner's office was unable to provide information without a name. A search of obituaries in Tennessee newspapers from the beginning of 2016 for 5-year-old boys did not yield conclusive proof confirming or refuting the account.

Too good to be true?

Schmitt-Matzen did not respond to multiple calls seeking comment. When reached by phone this afternoon, a man claiming to be his spokesman told CNN he was working on a response.

Schmitt-Matzen told the Washington Post he stands by his account. He would not name the nurse or boy.

"If some people want to call me a liar ... I can handle that better than I can handle a child in my arms dying," he said. "It's sticks and stones."

In an email to CNNMoney, Venable said the newspaper's statement "speaks for itself."

The announcement by the News Sentinel forced the dozens of news outlets that picked up the story to address the change.

USA Today added an editor's note to the top of its version of the story, saying it had also removed a video interview with Schmitt-Matzen that accompanied the post. BuzzFeed rewrote the story at the same URL where the original story was published.

Story begins to unravel

The story nailed the emotional richness of the holiday season in a time when Americans could use some heartwarming news, even if it provoked a few tears.

Schmitt-Matzen, a known Santa in the area thanks to his jolly frame and impeccably groomed white beard, told the News Sentinel a nurse called him and told him a sick 5-year-old boy wanted to see Santa Claus. He said he arrived at the hospital in 15 minutes and took the child in his arms, warning people who might cry to leave the room.

He repeated the heart-wrenching exchange nearly word for word in subsequent interviews, with the same impact.

"I've gotten a big response to this," Venable told CNN. "People have told me that they were crying when they read it, and I tell them that I was crying when I wrote it."

The story began to unravel on Tuesday, when Snopes ran a piece scrutinizing Schmitt-Matzen's account.

"The story kept spreading but with no second sourcing," Arturo Garcia, the Snopes reporter who wrote the follow-up, told CNNMoney. "I think part of the issue here is that a lot of outlets don't give their reporters time to vet these things."